The Fire That Won't Die Out

The Fire That Won't Die Out 

A tragedy at a girls? school in Mecca gives Saudi

rulers an opening to break down ancient barriers. But

will they? 


By Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland

NEWSWEEK July 22 issue 

  The fire started among thrown-away

books and papers. One of the teenagers at Girls'

Intermediate School No. 31 in Mecca, the holiest city

in Islam, was sneaking a cigarette before classes. A

hall monitor spotted her on the trash-strewn landing

at the top of the stairs and she tossed the butt away.

Twenty minutes later, teachers smelled smoke. One

shouted, 'Fire!' Within seconds, panic more intense

than the flames swept through the school.    


July 15  Four months ago, 15 girls died in a terrible

fire at a girls school in Saudi Arabia, when ancient

traditions kept male firefighters from entering the

building. Newsweek magazines Christopher Dickey

discusses changes sparked by the case. 


ABOUT 750 GIRLS from the ages of 13 to 17 poured into

the single narrow stairwell, but the door at the

bottom the door to the air and light was locked and

chained. The only person with a key was a man, an

illiterate guard who?d left on a menial errand,

closing everyone inside. The electricity went off.

Screaming, suffocating girls began to die in the dark.

        It got worse fast. Firefighters and ambulances

arrived in short order, probably before anyone had

died. But according to eyewitness reports, a member of

the muttawa, zealous vigilantes who defend

narrow-minded morality in the name of Islam, fought

with the Civil Defense units that wanted to enter the

building. The muttawa belong to the officially

sanctioned Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the

Prevention of Vice and make it their job to enforce

head coverings for women and strict separation of the

sexes. The fleeing girls had left their scarves

behind, and their would-be rescuers were men. Some of

the girls were actually forced back into the building

to cover up. Finally, regular police subdued the

muttawa leader, confiscated his ID and dragged him

away. The school door was opened, the small fire

extinguished. But by then 15 girls were dead or dying,

and more than 40 were injured.  



        The tragedy that unfolded that morning was

small compared with the September 11 outrage in New

York exactly seven months earlier, which has

profoundly affected the United States? view of Saudi

Arabia and, indeed, of the Muslim world. But in Mecca

as much as in Massachusetts, all politics is local.

And what happened at Girls  School No. 31 had deeper

and more immediate consequences for most Saudis than

anything that happened in New York or Washington?or,

for that matter, in Afghanistan or Israel.   


       It was an accident that neednt have been an

atrocity, and probably wouldnt have been in any other

place. The Saudi people knew that. And what?s more,

the de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince

Abdullah, knew they knew?and made sure they knew.

?He?s very intuitive, and very decisive,? says one of

Abdullah?s fellow princes. A Western diplomat says

Abdullah has been looking for ways ?to modernize from

the top. If so, then the process began at the bottom

of that schools stairs.

        None of the victims were spoiled princesses.

None were raised in marble palaces or driven to school

in Rolls-Royces. They came from families with little

money, no connections, no influence. Like most Saudis.

Although there are still thousands of Saudi royals who

lead extravagant lives, the petrodollars don?t trickle

down to their subjects the way they used to. Many of

the kingdom?s people are poor and getting poorer.

Estimated per capita income is now $6,800, a mere

fourth of what it was 20 years ago. The population is

exploding, opportunities are not and unemployment

statistics simply are not compiled. Infrastructure is

aging and public services are neglected. In some

Riyadh neighborhoods water supplies are unreliable and

people line up at taps near the houses of princes

because they think the water there is purer. In Mecca,

the street in front of Girls? School No. 31 is rutted,

potholed, the pavement more a memory than a surface.



       All women in Saudi Arabia live a kind of gender

apartheid, separate and unequal, but it?s much worse

for the poor. School No. 31 was administered by the

Presidency for Girls? Education, a bureaucracy apart

from the Education Ministry, and No. 31 wasn?t really

a school building at all. An apartment block rented at

suspiciously high rates, it has 20 bathrooms and 11

kitchens, but only five square feet of classroom space

per student. There were no smoke detectors, no fire

alarms. The windows were covered with iron grilles

like a prison.

        Suddenly, Saudis found themselves face to face

with the implications of religious intolerance. The

events of September 11 had set off alarms in the

government: 15 of the 19 hijackers proved to be

Saudis. So were thousands of Osama bin Laden?s core

recruits. But for people on the streets in Jidda,

Riyadh or Mecca, that threat seemed distant. Now they

began talking of the good old days when their

traditions weren?t so dominated by the intolerant

Wahhabi fringe. In the 1970s, many remembered, Saudi

society was moving quickly from a Bedouin desert

culture toward a more open, cosmopolitan one. With the

world?s biggest oil reserves, the country was rich

beyond anyone?s dreams. Its sons?and even

daughters?were being educated by the thousands in

America. But fanatics stormed the Great Mosque of

Mecca in 1979, and even though they were routed out

and killed, a frightened regime called a halt to

liberalization. The muttawa became a law unto

themselves, with their own bureaucracy and police

powers independent of the Interior Ministry.   


 Saudi Arabia's officially sanctioned Society for the

Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice make it

their job to enforce head coverings for women and

separation of the sexes


        Until March, Abdullah?s efforts to open the

country back up had been faltering. When Abdullah

granted permission last year for women to have their

own ID cards instead of appearing as wards on their

husbands?, sheiks attacked the measure as a license

for prostitution because the ID photos would be


        When word came of a fire in a girls? school,

newspaper editor Abdul Rahman Saad Alorabi decided to

throw every reporter he had at it. His paper,

Al-Nadwa, is distributed throughout Saudi Arabia, but

Mecca is its hometown. Alorabi?s subeditors started

ringing around to women reporters, who work out of

their houses since the paper doesn?t have special

segregated facilities for women. They were assigned to

interview the girls who survived and the women in the

dead girls? families. Again and again they heard

stories that the muttawa had interfered with rescue

workers. ?They knew we were inside and didn?t want to

help us,? cried one of the children interviewed.



       Alorabi knew it was an explosive story?and he

ran it. ?Today we publish articles that I might have

been jailed for 10 or 15 years ago,? said Alorabi.

?It?s OK sometimes to talk about what people want and

people need.? Until recently, says the former history

professor, not even common crimes were reported in the

Saudi press, much less scandals and tragedies that

imply bad government. But since the gulf war, the

walls of righteous ignorance around Saudi society have

been stormed by technology.  



         A ban against satellite dishes in the early

1990s was ignored into irrelevance. According to a

recently released survey by ACNielsen, satellite- TV

penetration into Saudi homes is now 80 percent:

?Amongst the highest in the world.? The

no-holds-barred Al-Jazeera all-news station in

neighboring Qatar is the third most-watched channel in

the kingdom. Internet use is soaring. Mobile phones

are everywhere, spreading gossip, or news, as fast as

the punch of a button. The tale of the fire in Mecca

was going to get out no matter what the government

did. ?I thought we were the only newspaper that would

dare to do it,? said Alorabi. ?But by the next day all

the newspapers in the kingdom were publishing it.?

        This story had everything, says Jamal

Khashoggi, deputy editor in chief of Arab News, the

country?s leading English-language daily. ?It brought

attention to corruption, run-down facilities, not only

at that school, but others. And the most important

thing: the popular reaction to the religious

establishment.? Khashoggi told the staff: ?Don?t look

back, don?t wait for them to say anything, just go for


        The editorial pages went still further. Some

even published poetry, which is peculiarly powerful in

Arabic, a melodic and allusive language, where

metaphors are well-understood weapons. Al-Nadwa

printed a poem by one of the survivors, Ghayda

Al-Sharif, about her sister, Shirooq??Sunrise??one of

the smallest girls killed in the stairwell: ?Sunrise

said goodbye to us and left us in darkness. I was

going to meet her after class, but now I?m going to

meet her in heaven.? Another poet, Abdul Mohsen

Musalam, found the limits of the government?s

tolerance. He attacked the country?s Islamic judges

for bribe-taking and service to tyrants. ?How many

[Qur?anic] verses and sayings [of the Prophet] you

have slaughtered,? Musalam wrote, addressing the

magistrates in the pages of the daily Al-Madina. ?Your

beards are smeared with blood.? Musalam was jailed and

his editor was fired. And authorities criticized the

press for sensationalizing the charges against the




       Crown Prince Abdullah, the ailing King Fahd?s

heir apparent, is the country?s de facto ruler. But

just how he shares power with his many half brothers

and potential rivals is a matter of constant

speculation. The succession is by no means a done

deal, and Abdullah has been a cautious player. Since

9-11, certainly, he?s been more assertive. And after

the Mecca tragedy, his government moved

extraordinarily fast. Abdullah sent a sharply worded

public letter to the next brother in line for the

throne, Prince Sultan: ?I want you to start now to

investigate what happened in Mecca.? The deaths were

?unacceptable,? said Abdullah, the work of ?negligent,

incompetent and careless officials.? Prince Naif, the

powerful Interior minister, said marginalization of

women should end. ?We all belong to the same country

... and that goes for males and females.?   



        The script was being written and the stage set

for the head of the Presidency of Girls? Education,

Ali Al-Murshid, to make an ignominious exit. But

Al-Murshid, who affects the beard and robes of a pious

zealot, didn?t seem to get the message. He held a

press dinner where he was photographed being led into

the room by a servant carrying a censer, waving the

perfumed smoke before him as if he were some ancient

Oriental potentate. A sumptuous banquet was laid out,

with Filipino servants in full livery, and each

attending journalist was offered a sheepskin briefcase

as a souvenir. ?It was so disgusting and repulsive,?

wrote Nourah Abdul Aziz al-Kheriji, a well-known

professor from Medina, and a woman. ?What were they

celebrating? Did they think it was a wedding?? Within

a week, Al-Murshid was fired and his ministry

abolished. The new head of girls? education is a man,

Qaidir Ibn Olayan Al-Quraishi, but he is a respected

academic and a well-known secularist.

        Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and women?s

activist, says there are two big events that have put

the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia on the

defensive: 9-11 and the fire in Mecca. But at best

they?ll just hasten change that was coming in its own

way, on its own time and largely thanks to Crown

Prince Abdullah. ?You can?t believe how much people

love him here, a pure Saudi man and not corrupt. He?s

a traditional man, but pro-woman.?

        The crown prince will need that reserve of

good will if he?s to continue his campaign of top-down

reform. The sad fact is that most Saudis are deeply

suspicious of change?and hostile to the West. Last

October the Saudi intelligence agency produced a

confidential poll of men between 25 and 41.

Ninety-five percent said they approved of Osama bin

Laden?s cause. As one high-ranking Saudi said,

?fortunately, this is not a democracy.? Even so,

changing it will not be easy. Reaction to the fire in

Mecca was only one painful, small step.

 2002 Newsweek, Inc.


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